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Free speech in the workplace and walking the tight rope of political correctness

Published 07 July 2015

The debate about what constitutes free speech in the workplace remains a costly one for employers.

It was again the topic for much discussion recently following the conclusion of a case in which a Christian nursery worker was fired for expressing what her employer believed to be anti-gay comments to a gay colleague.

An employment tribunal ruled the former employee was discriminated against on the grounds of her religious beliefs.

The court found the actions were not harassment of a gay colleague and that she was entitled to express her religious beliefs in the workplace in the context of the conversation which took place.

Free speech is the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint, and employers face an age-old dilemma in having to determine when it crosses the proverbial thin line and becomes offensive.

Robust policies and rules should be in place to ensure the workplace is inclusive and supportive, and to deal with any unacceptable behaviour.

Workers are protected from harassment and less favourable treatment on the grounds of race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, religious belief and age.

It is often the case that a comment one employee considers acceptable is thought to be totally inappropriate by a workmate.

If a complaint is made there should be an established framework such as a grievance policy, bullying and harassment and equal opportunities polices in place to address the matter.

Any investigation should be conducted promptly and be thorough and fair. An employee who complains in good faith should be protected from reprisals.

A common defence by a worker alleged to have spoken out of turn is that it is usual and accepted language in the workplace. Add the increasing use of slang words for dissing – that is being insulting in case you are unsure – a person and it can complicate the matter further.

Training the workforce and being proactive in communicating to staff what is and is not acceptable is advisable, as it will minimise the risk of inappropriate language being used – and an expensive court case.

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